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Stationary Bike vs. Elliptical: Which Gym Machine Gives You a Better Workout?

They’re two of the most popular pieces of equipment in any gym, but when it comes to the battle of stationary bike vs. elliptical, is one actually better than the other? To find out, we caught up with Jamie Costello, the fitness director at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Adam Reeder, president of Paragon Health & Fitness. The bottom line is this: There are immense benefits to each machine, so the question of which provides a better workout really comes down to your individual body needs and fitness goals. Still, there are minor differences between the two that you should know before your next sweat sesh.  

Meet the Experts

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two photos side by side of a woman on a stationary bike and a woman on an elliptical
©fitopardo; skynesher/getty images

Stationary Bike vs Elliptical: What's the Difference?

Both stationary bikes and ellipticals are stationary cardio machines, with stationary bikes mimicking the movements you’d do on a road bike and ellipticals engage your arms and legs to allow you to stair climb, walk or run in place.

Both machines offer users the opportunity to improve their aerobic fitness (or exercise that provides cardiovascular conditioning) without placing stress on the joints, which is common with other aerobic exercises like running on a treadmill or jumping rope. Reeder explains, “If a user is unable to or prefers not to walk, jog or run for their aerobic fitness, the bike and elliptical provide alternatives to achieve the same goals.”

They’re also both great ways to burn calories. According to Harvard Health Publishing, a 155-pound person burns, on average, 252 calories per 30 minutes of stationary biking, versus 324 calories on the elliptical for the same amount of time. 

Is a Stationary Bike or Elliptical Better?

Reeder and Costello agree that neither machine is better than the other, though Costello notes that a stationary bike could be a better starting point for someone who’s working out for the first time (or the first time in a long time). “The bike is the easiest way to get started when new to exercise, especially if you are coming with injuries or health concerns. What I like about the bikes is their ease on joints, accessibility, and safety. They just require minor seat setting adjustments making them non-intimidating and sustainable.”

The elliptical, on the other hand, is great for those with a little more experience, says Costello. “They provide both and upper body workout and options not to use the arms when first learning.” He adds that they’re definitely user-friendly but do require skill at a certain level. “They improve balance and coordination with reverse pedal direction, and they also offer a large range if incline options.”

Experience level aside, the choice between the two machines is largely up to personal preference. “They're both low impact cardio tools,” Reeder notes. “I recommend that the individual chooses whichever tool they enjoy using. There's no discernable difference in terms of the impact on aerobic development between machines."

One Final Note

When it comes to the stationary bike vs. elliptical—and all workout equipment in general—both of the experts we consulted agree that variety is key. Reeder tells us, “The best advice I could give to a user whom I've never met would be to try both and see which one you prefer. If you don't have a strong preference either way, mix it up and do some of both. As long as you're training your aerobic system consistently, it really doesn't matter how you get there.”

Costello adds that changing up your routine and the machines you’re using prevents your body from plateauing and getting too used to the same kinds of movement. “Change is good for your body, your skill development, improves calorie burn and now we know, even stimulates brain neuroplasticity. Great news on all fronts.”